Efraim Karsh: A Legacy of Violence

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Efraim Karsh is professor of Middle East and Mediterranean studies at King's College London, editor of the Middle East Quarterly and author of Islamic Imperialism: A History.]

Turbulent times often breed nostalgia for a supposedly idyllic past. Viewing the upheavals sweeping the Middle East as a mass expression of outrage against oppression, eminent historian Bernard Lewis fondly recalled past regional order.

"The sort of authoritarian, even dictatorial regimes that rule most of the countries in the modern Islamic Middle East are a modern creation. They are a result of modernization," he told The Jerusalem Post. "The pre-modern regimes were much more open, much more tolerant. You can see this from a number of contemporary descriptions. And the memory of that is still living."

I doubt past generations of Muslims would share this view. In the long history of the Islamic empire, the wide gap between delusions of grandeur and the forces of localism would be bridged time and again by force of arms, making violence a key element of Islamic political culture. No sooner had the prophet Muhammad died than his successor, Abu Bakr, had to suppress a widespread revolt among the Arabian tribes. Twenty-three years later, the head of the umma, Caliph Uthman ibn Affan, was murdered by disgruntled rebels; his successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was confronted for most of his reign with armed insurrections, most notably by the governor of Syria, Mu'awiya ibn Abi Sufian, who went on to establish the Umayyad dynasty after Ali's assassination.

Mu'awiya's successors managed to hang onto power mainly by relying on physical force to prevent or quell revolts in the diverse corners of their empire. The same was true for the Abbasids during the long centuries of their sovereignty....

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Thomas Holloway - 3/4/2011

Of course, history from the top of the political heap has always and everywhere emphasized the violent crises and episodes that make for a dramatic narrative structure. Maybe Lewis was referring to everyday life for most people in the not-too-distant pre-state and non-colonial past, before the time when colonial regimes or local despots had the will and means to impose authoritarian policies on everyone at all times.